Inside Mike McCarthy's split with Packers and what's next for him

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Stephen A. argues McCarthy underachieved with Rodgers (1:25)

Stephen A. Smith notes it was time for the Packers to move on from Mike McCarthy after only one Super Bowl appearance with Aaron Rodgers. (1:25)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy ranks 25th in NFL history with 135 coaching wins, including playoffs, and plans to add to that total with his next job.

As for his last one, he knew if the Green Bay Packers missed the playoffs in 2018 -- something that had happened three other times in his 13 years as head coach -- change was possible.

But he never expected it to happen the way it did.

Not as a coach who is among four coaches to lead a single franchise to at least eight straight playoff appearances, joining Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick in that category. And not as one who trails only Curly Lambeau in all-time wins in charge of the Packers.

"If we missed the playoffs, I expected change might happen," McCarthy told ESPN.com in his first sit-down interview since he was fired Dec. 2 with four games left in the 2018 season. "But the timing surprised me. Actually it stunned me. It couldn't have been handled any worse."

It marked the first time in more than 60 years the Packers made a midseason coaching change. And team president Mark Murphy did it to a coach who not only led the Packers to nine playoff appearances, a Super Bowl title and helped rewrite the team's offensive record books, but also one who endeared himself to the community with the McCarthy Family Foundation, which raised more than $9 million for local, national and international charities, including the American Family Children's Hospital.

McCarthy also served as the spokesman for the franchise during everything from the Brett Favre saga of 2008 to the Fail Mary situation of 2012 to almost every personnel decision that his reclusive former general manager, Ted Thompson, never would publicly address. McCarthy still lives in Green Bay with his wife, Jessica, and their family.

He plans to coach again in the NFL and is expected to be one of the top names on candidate lists next offseason.

"Time provides the opportunity for reflection and clarity and that's where I'm at now," said McCarthy, who interviewed for the Jets' coaching job that went to Adam Gase. "And it's clear to me now that both sides needed a change."

In his office at his home in Green Bay, McCarthy discussed with ESPN everything from the end of his tenure and Murphy's claim that complacency had set in, to left tackle David Bakhtiari's suggestion of a lack of accountability, coaching Aaron Rodgers, his plans for his year off and what's next.

How are you, and what have you been up to?

McCarthy: I'm doing well. Everything's good with my family. They're happy and healthy, and frankly that's all that really matters. I've gotten to spend some quality time with my wife and kids, and that's been a blessing. What I've been up to (laughs), I guess you could say I'm trying to figure out this thing you call a normal life. It's been awhile since I had one.

I think around 33 years to be exact since the last time you weren't coaching ...

McCarthy: There you go. Wow, that's a long time.

Yeah, 1986, you were a senior in college. How are you handling it?

McCarthy: I guess I'm nervous about it. Routine is such a big part of being efficient and successful in your daily structure when you're involved in football, and I have to create that at home now. Anytime there's something new there's definitely some nervousness to it. The initial transition was a challenge, no doubt. But now things are set up and getting into a semi-routine, and I'm excited about what I'm going to be able to accomplish in this next year.

Before we talk about next year, I want to go back to last season because you haven't spoken yet about how it ended. Did you have any indication what was coming before Mark Murphy called you in to give you the news?

McCarthy: Frankly, no I did not. As a head coach, I've always tried to stay immune to and stand in front of all the outside noise. That was always my focus with my players. It was always to protect them as much as possible from the drama. I think that's important. And I stayed true to that to the last day. If we missed the playoffs, I expected change might happen. But the timing surprised me. Actually it stunned me. But time provides the opportunity for reflection and clarity and that's where I'm at now. And it's clear to me now that both sides needed a change.

How so?

McCarthy: I go back to really the first thing my wife said to me, the first moment Jessica and I were alone and talking about what happened. She said, 'Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm relieved for you.' I kinda gave her a look. And she said, 'The last two or three years, you haven't been here physically or mentally. Every family loses their husband, father during the season, but you've been gone the last two offseasons. I know you're not happy with the way things were going there, and it's beat the hell out of you. It's beat the hell out of you the last couple of years. It's been hard to watch it.' That was a couple hours after I got home, and that was the reality, that was the reality that I had to identify with, and that was real.

"She said, 'Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm relieved for you.' I kinda gave her a look. And she said, 'The last two or three years, you haven't been here physically or mentally. Every family loses their husband, father during the season, but you've been gone the last two offseasons." Mike McCarthy on what his wife Jessica said to him after his firing

The ending, many people thought you deserved a better ending. Do you agree?

McCarthy: Obviously. It couldn't have been handled any worse. Anytime you lose a close game, it's a difficult time emotionally afterwards, but when you lose a home game at Lambeau Field in December, it's really hard. And that hasn't happened very often. I walked out of my press conference, and I'm thinking about the game, thinking about how our playoff shot was now minimal. That's where my head was at. And when I was told Mark Murphy wanted to see me -- and the messenger was cold and the energy was bad. Mark said it was an ugly loss, and it was time to make change. He said something about the offense and the special teams, and he didn't think it was going to get any better. There was no emotion to it. That was hard.

Every time I released an individual, you get your words right. There's a personal component to it. You know he has a family. He's family. There wasn't any of that. So that was off. The way people leave that building was very important to me. That's a part of the business. Hopefully moving forward for guys like Clay [Matthews] and Randall [Cobb] and Nick Perry and Jordy Nelson and T.J. Lang, it's important for them to leave the right way. That way represents the Green Bay Packers standard that I tried to uphold every day.

That exit, frankly, Rob, the exit really stuck with me for a while. It was hard to swallow. The emotional challenge of shifting from humiliation to reflection was a very important step in seeking clarity so I could personally grow from the experience of my entire Green Bay Packer career; that's what I wanted to get to, not just the ending of it.

But hey, I'll never forget the response after because I put my phone away [that night]. I woke up, and I could not believe my phone. When we won the Super Bowl, I received over 200 texts. That week, I had over 500. I got more than twice as many messages for getting fired than I did when I won the damn Super Bowl. It's remarkable. They were from current and former players, competitors, owners of other NFL teams, politicians, media members, guys I competed against that I had never even talked to. I was blown away by it and still am.

You talked about staying immune to the outside noise, but now you're on the so-called outside, you're living in Green Bay, which everyone knows is a small city. How much harder is it to tune it out?

McCarthy: Oh yeah, definitely it is. This is Green Bay. You live here, too. You know exactly what I'm going through. It's the conversation of change is the way I look at it. You have to understand the conversation of change. It's normal. It stings, whether you agree with it or not. But let me say this: When you throw out words like complacency and accountability, that bothered me. That's not accurate. I'll be first to say that coaches are in the business of being criticized. We deal with it on a daily basis. But when you throw out a statement like that, you better have it right. A big part of the success I've had in this league is due to a tireless work ethic. All coaches work hard, but the accountability comment was totally inaccurate. I held my coaches and players accountable every year. Our internal fine process would support that. All I know is I did my job every day and was accountable to winning in line with the standards and the values of the Green Bay Packers that were established by the likes of Ted Thompson and clearly Bob Harlan a long time ago.

You said the one thing that bothered you were the comments about complacency and accountability, but did the conversation about the relationship with your quarterback bother you, too? Aaron Rodgers publicly ripped the offense and the game plan after the 22-0 win over Buffalo in Week 4 when the story would've probably been about the defense's first shutout in years. And people on the sidelines told me he would complain about playcalls off the field. How difficult was he to coach?

McCarthy: In football, there are things that are said on the sideline that stay on the sidelines for players and coaches alike. As far as that situation, I honestly am not aware of it. Aaron has always been heavily involved in game-planning each week and scheme design each year. I entrusted him and empowered him more than any other quarterback I've ever been around, especially at the line of scrimmage.

As far as our relationship, you have to put it through the proper lens like you always have to do with reflection and change. Where there's change, let's be real, especially the way the change happened, there's things that come out after the fact. Things get said. He-said, he-said this and things like that. When I think about my relationship with Aaron, you're talking about 13 years. That's a very long time. It's been a privilege to watch him grow in so many different ways and see him do so many great things on the field and off. To think you can be in a relationship that long and not have any frustrations, that's unrealistic.

As far as coaching him, I'd use a lot of words. He's challenging, very rewarding and fun. We had a lot of fun. Some of my greatest one-on-one conversations, accomplishments, adjustments and adversity we fought through have been with Aaron. The difficulty in coaching a Hall of Fame quarterback is keeping that connection, the efficiency and the fluency with the other players on offense. They want to do more. They're capable of doing so much more, but the reality is you have to remember is it's the coordination of 11 men on every play. But yeah, it's pretty fun to go through your entire offensive playbook and know you can run everything in there with your quarterback. I mean, that's a joy. His job was to score as many points as he can. My job was to make it all work. We can all grow personally and professionally, but because of the experience I had not only with Aaron but with all my players, I know I'm a much better person and a better coach than I was 13 years ago. I hope Aaron and all the players I coached, I hope they feel the same.

What do you hope that Aaron and all those players you coached say they took from you?

McCarthy: That's a tough question. The word that comes to mind is drive. There's a consistency component to it, a commitment component to it and the reality that everything we did and talked about was about winning. Every conversation, every drill I tried never to waste any time. Drive was my daily focus. But I hope, God, I hope, that every single one of them knows me as a husband and as a father. I used to share stories about my family all the time. Hell, there was one season when the focus of my whole Saturday night talks were stories about growing up in my old Pittsburgh neighborhood. I always tried to give those guys a part of me. We talked about how generations of players changed, but so do coaches. Over 13 years, I know I grew as a husband and as a father. I changed, and I hope that was reflected not just in what I did but in who I am.

"He's challenging, very rewarding and fun. We had a lot of fun. Some of my greatest one-on-one conversations, accomplishments, adjustments and adversity we fought through have been with Aaron." Mike McCarthy on Aaron Rodgers

You've brought up consistency a few times. Coaches don't last 13 years with one team much anymore. You not only lasted, but you won 135 games, went to the playoffs nine times, won a Super Bowl and have a street named after you that intersects with Holmgren Way and is adjacent to Lombardi Avenue. How did you do it?

McCarthy: No. 1 it's the people. It's the strength of the Green Bay Packers throughout the organization. You've been in our locker room, I mean those are great guys to coach. The support staff, unbelievable. The football operations, just so many good people around the organization. Then you have the fans. Our fans are unbelievable. Also, I can't say enough about how our friends and the community have treated my family throughout this. It's been bigger than supporting us. I mean heck, they've protected us. The Packers are an institution and a lifestyle. Frankly, I just got back from Switzerland on a family vacation and was recognized over there. So it's a special place.

You talked about the Packers, the organization, your family, the community, but you haven't said anything about yourself. The question was about you.

McCarthy: Yeah, you noticed that. I'm not trying to avoid the question, I just think it's a 'we' answer, not a 'me' answer. Football success is awesome, but it's really a combination of all those people buying into my vision, and that's not always easy. What made me go was my family. It's the most important thing to me. The family Jess and I have been blessed with is an incredible stabilizer and foundation for me.

Having been through all this, what advice would you give to your successor, Matt LaFleur?

McCarthy: Matt LaFleur. Totally embrace the Green Bay community with your family. It's a phenomenal place to live. It's a phenomenal place to raise a family. You know that, Rob. Heck, coach your ass off, have fun and enjoy the honor because it goes fast. Enjoy the honor of being the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Make the program your own. That's very important. You were hired here for a very good reason; don't get too far away from that. You have a great group of men in that locker room. I think they're special, and they'll work their butts for you.

Finally, we're sitting here right now in what you call your "football laboratory." Everything in here is football. You've got playbooks and game plans and video equipment. Clearly, you're not just sitting around doing nothing. What's your plan for this year off?

McCarthy: I'm laughing at the word 'off.' I don't feel like I've taken any time off. I'm focused on improving as a coach. I have a plan to be the best prepared I can be when, God willing, I get another opportunity next year. I cannot thank DV Sports enough for creating a platform for me called The McCarthy Project. It gives me, along with a few coaches I'm working with, the ability to engulf ourselves into the video research, data and analytics. It's about getting back to the fundamentals, studying trends while going back and restructuring old playbooks from New Orleans all the way through Green Bay. We've already broken down eight offenses from the league, so yeah, I'm careful about using the phrase 'taking a year off.'

That's professionally. But personally, this is a very important year for me and my family. Green Bay is our home, always will be. My career, the ups and downs of everything that's gone on in football, will never define us as a family. Making sure home base is in order, trying to create the opportunities for our children to grow and prepare them for life ahead is where we are and who we are. Family first, no matter what logo we're wearing. As a coach, your season is defined by wins and losses. This year is about family moments and how many family moments put us in position to grow. That's my scoreboard.